Friday, 3 August 2018

Zara's Emporium of Wonder

The kitchen door flew open and the handle slammed into the wall, denting the plaster.

"Benny McAlister! How many times have I told you not to slam that door?" she shouted, an accusation that halted the excited ten-year-old in his tracks. He'd made her heart jump and that added considerably to her ire. His manic grin melted ever so slowly, like an ice-cream-cone in the summer heat. He looked like a scolded puppy, how could she stay mad at him? In a much kinder tone she asked, "What is all the rush about?"

Kids are like Geiger counters for adult emotions, he knew he was out of trouble. His smile got hoisted back to full mast as he rushed forward waving a colorful flyer. "It's the circus, Mom! The circus is coming! THE CIRCUS!" he cried spinning in a circle. She thought her son was half human and half springier spaniel.

"I love a good circus," she said taking the flyer from his little fingers. The circular depicted a big top with a golden-caped woman standing in the ring masters position, her hands were raised and beaming smile crowned her magnificently. Around her, trapeze artists tumbled, jugglers juggled, clowns threw buckets of confetti and beautiful ladies balanced on the backs of snow-white horses. At the bottom of the page an adoring sea of faces looked on in amazement. The masthead declared, in big bold letters, For one day only, this Friday! Zara's Emporium of Wonder! 

"I don't know, you might be a bit old for this?" she teased.

"Moooooooom," he wailed, turning his face into a crumpled mask of disapprovement but she knew him too well, he was only playing along with her joke.

"Well...if you're sure," she said and let the half statement, half question, hang in the air.

"Mom!" Benny said stamping his foot.

She broke into a grin; she couldn't help herself. He was such a little man. "Alright, we'll go," she said and it was like striking a match to a fire cracker. Benny danced around the kitchen chanting "Yes, yes, yes,"and pumping his little fists in the air.

***

Benny spent the rest of the week counting down the minutes to the arrival of the circus. On Thursday he rushed in from school to say the big top had gone up.

"You should see it, Mom. Its HUGE!" he said with his eyes bulging and his arms spread as wide as they would go. Its red, yellow, green, blue, orange...its like a rainbow but one you can touch," he said excitedly.

"Did you see any elephants?"

"No, no elephants."

"What about lions or tigers?"

"Nope," he said a little disappointed.

"Well perhaps its not that kind of a circus, it might be a people circus. Did you see any circus folk?"

"None of those either," he said sadly, all the fun was gone out of his big news.

"I bet they were all inside putting out the seats for the show," she said. 

"Yeaaaa! Betcha that's it," he said, joy radiating from his face once more. He bounded away toward his bedroom and she called after him. 

"Don't forget your homework or there'll be no circus at all."

"No Mom!" came the cheery reply from the hallway.

***
Friday night took forever to get here, according to Benny at least. Trying to get him into his good clothes and his hair brushed was a nightmare, he wouldn't standstill for a second. By the time they got out the door it was dusk. They walked hand in hand toward the town green. Before long they could hear the music being piped through the Tannoy system, a music teacher once told her it was called Entry of the Gladiators, but to her it would always be the sound of the circus. On the evening breeze she could smell sweet buttered popcorn and candyfloss. Around them children ran past dragging adults toward the source of all the excitement. Benny was soon pulling on her arm, eager to join the fun.

When the big top came into view it was just as Benny described, only better, because it now twinkled under a constellation of electric light bulbs. She bought a stick of candyfloss for Benny and a tub of popcorn for herself before lining up to purchase tickets.

Klunck! Klunck! went the brass plate beneath the ticket vendors window and two pink tickets shot out. It looked like the booth was sticking its tongue out at them. She felt Benny squeeze her hand as she ripped away the stubs. He was on tender hooks and she even felt a few butterflies herself. Perhaps the magic of the circus never leaves you. They crossed the threshold and it was like stepping into a different universe. Beside her Benny said, "Whoha." It was dark, but not gloomy. Strings of bulbs hung from the roof of the big top and it looked like someone captured the night sky and moved it inside. Benny ushered her toward the front row and picked seats for them ringside. A circus has its own smell and this one was no different. She inhaled a lungful of earthy air overlayed with warm tarpaulin and a hint of sawdust. Under all that lingered the musky smell of animal. Perhaps Benny would get to see some tigers after all.

Soon the lights dimmed and two follow-spots sprang to life, dancing over the excited crowd before settling on a red velvet curtain across the performance area. A splendidly attired ring master appeared and strode purposefully to the arena. His voice boomed over the crowd without need of amplification. His curling mustache danced as he spoke. The first act to perform was a troupe on the trapeze. Benny was mesmerised. His little body swayed over and back in time with the swinging gymnasts and when they let go...he held his breath, tensing every muscle in his tiny body, until the catch was made. When the act was over he jumped to his feet and clapped like his life depended on it.

The next act was a sword swallower, followed by a fire breather, then came the jugglers and a contortionist. Not a sign of an animal but if anything the smell of beast was getting stronger.

A huge boom rang out and Benny nearly jumped out of his skin. The velvet curtains flew apart and a gang of clowns ran into the ring chasing a tiny police car. Round and round they went, crashing into each other, slipping, tripping, falling and tumbling until the whole crowd was cheering, well everyone except Benny who was hugging her arm and trying to hide his face behind it.

"Whats wrong?" she asked having to raise her voice to be heard over the laughter.

"They're not nice, I don't like them," he said and she knew by his voice he was terrified.

"Oh honey they're only men in funny clothes and makeup. They are just trying to make people laugh."

"They're monsters," he said and hid behind her completely.

"No they're not," she said. She never thought her adventure loving little man would be afraid of clowns.

She thought she heard him say, "They have teeth," but she couldn't be sure. He refused to come out from behind her shoulder until the clowns had finished their routine and departed the ring. Benny was still shivering when the ring master came back and braced himself for his next announcement.

"Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Prepare to be amazed! I present to you...Lady Zara!" Drums rolled and the lights went out completely. When the drums reached their crescendo the spotlights came back on and a very tall woman, dressed from head-to-toe in glittering gold, had appeared in the middle of the ring. The crowd drew in a collective breath and went, "Wooo!" Without a word Lady Zara began her act. The ring master was right, she did amaze.

She made a box levitate into the air and then passed a hoop around it to prove there were no wires. With a flick of her hand the box shot into the air, where it opened by itself, and rained down confetti on the crowd. She put the ring master into a large box and then cut him in half before putting him back together. She made a pair of doves appear and when she let them go they flew up and vanished in a ball of flame.

For her final trick some helpers rolled a tall black box with a curtain hung across the front of it into the ring. Lady Zara walked toward the crowd and looked directly at Benny. With a long finger, Lady Zara beckoned him to join her. Benny didn't move straight away instead he looked up at her for approval. She worried he was still shaken after the clowns but this was a once in a lifetime chance, the chance to see magic up close and personal. She nodded her approval and Benny sprang forward, eager for this new adventure to begin. He clambered over the edge of the ring and joined the tall woman who was hold out her delicate hand toward him. The audience applauded as Lady Zara led Benny to the box and pulled the curtain open. There was nothing inside. The magician rapped on each side to let the crowd would know the box was solid before placing Benny inside. The crowd grew quite and held their breath. Lady Zara pulled the curtain across with a snap of her wrist and the drums rang out three times. The sorceress threw the curtain back and Benny was gone.

All around people clapped and cheered but she couldn't join in, she was frozen to her seat with terror. Inside her chest her heart was thundering, her boy was gone. Yes, she had expected the illusion but there was something unnatural, something wrong about the whole thing. She was about to rush forward when the gold clad woman flipped the curtain closed and open again. It happened so quick the result could only be described as magic. Benny was once again standing there, gazing out of the box with his mouth hanging open ever so slightly. The sound of clapping grew louder and the crowd climbed to their feet in appreciation. The tall woman took Benny's hand and escorted him back to the edge of the ring. He was not smiling, he was not crying, he was...well...nothing. He looked dazed.

When Benny reached her she hugged him and said,"You're the star of the show, honey!" Her heart was still aflutter but she expected Benny to be uncontrollably giddy. Instead, he stood unmoving in her embrace and she thought she felt him tremble. She pulled back and looked at him. His eyes were far away.

"Are you ok?" she asked seriously and starting to get worried. He didn't respond so she gave his shoulder a little squeeze and that seemed to do the trick.

"It was dark and filled with voices," he said cryptically. She started to understand. Benny must have gotten a fright when the curtain closed. The sound of the crowd in the dark must have terrified him. She just held him close in a tight embrace to let him know he was safe now and as she did the lights in the tent came back up to full power. The show was over and it was time to go home. She stood and handed Benny the popcorn left in the bottom of her tub but he didn't want it. He took her hand as they prepared to move and his skin was shockingly cold on hers.


All the way home she asked Benny questions about being the star of the show but he refused to answer, he just walked along limply at her side. When they got home she tried to get him to eat but he refused, he even refused hot chocolate and marshmallows. She got him dressed for bed and thought he might be coming down with something. She put her hand on his forehead, expecting it to be warm, but it was like touching stone. Benny was freezing.

"Are you feeling bad, baby?" she asked but he shook his head and said.

"Feeling funny, tingly."

Tingly? That couldn't be good. She was going to get Doc Foster to come straight over. What ever was going on was not right at all. She tucked the duvet in all around Benny and he didn't stir a muscle. Only his head poked out the top. "I'll be back in a minute, if you need anything give a call," she said and planted a kiss on his cheek.

"Mom?"

"Yes Benny?"

"They were all calling my name."

"Who honey?" she asked rubbing his hair.

"The voices in the dark."

"Oh, baby, it was only a trick. It wasn't real," she said seeing a tear gathering at the corner of his eye.

Benny sniffled once and gave a little nod before saying, "ok."

"I'll be back in a jiffy. Are you sure you wont have a hot chocolate?" he just shook his head sadly.

***
She left the door ajar as she made a five minute call. Once that was done she went straight back to tell Benny that Doc Foster was on his way over but the room was empty. The duvet still was formed to his shape and it looked like he had evaporated.

"Benny," she called and went to check the bathroom but that was empty too. She ran back to the bedroom with dread in her heart. She checked the window but it was locked, as were all the other windows and doors. She called his name over and over again as she checked every room twice before rushing out of the house, calling his name, no screaming his name. A light sprang to life on her neighbours porch and Dale appeared in his PJ's.

"Whats going on?" he asked, worried. All she could say was Benny's gone, as she dashed into the street continuing to call for him at the top of her lungs. All along the road lights began appearing. When Doc Foster arrived there were already two sheriffs cars in the driveway with their bubblegum bars flashing. He had wanted to give her something to calm her down but she refused. She needed her wits about her or what was left of them. She tried to make the police understand the Benny had not gone out, he had vanished, but they didn't get what she was saying.

They started checking all the houses around the area and asked her to call his friends to see if he had turned up over there. No matter how many times she said, "One minute he was there... then he was gone," they just didn't get it. In the end she just went along with what they asked, they were the professionals after all.  

It was the small hours of the morning when they took her to the station, to take her statement. She was loaded into the back of a cruiser and driven into town. At the passed the green she was shocked to see the big top was already gone. That was when she realised she had not told the cops about the trip to the circus. It had to be them, the carny folk, they took her boy!

It took a long time for the officers to understand her frantic pleas but eventually they got it and one got on the radio.

"Dispatch, Missing ten-year-old, Benny McAlister attended the circus tonight and his mother believes someone from the circus may have snatched him. APB on all circus vehicles leaving the area, stop and search." In her heart a tiny sliver of hope shone in what was otherwise a black place. They'll find the circus, she thought, they had to.

Over the next hour or so she recounted her story again and again, answered the same questions asked a thousand different ways and none of it got them any closer to finding Benny.  It was morning whey they dropped her home. She asked the officer if they had found the circus. The guy turned his head around to give her the benefit of one eye.

"No Ma'am. Not as much as a piece of sawdust. Its like they were never here, but they were, my young'uns went to it. It sure is a mystery."

She dragged herself inside and collapsed at the kitchen table, sobbing uncontrollably for what seemed like ages. When she eventually did raise her head the first thing she saw was the gayly coloured flyer Benny had brought home at the start of the week.

For one day only!  Oh God, why did you have to come, she thought and something about the flyer made her look a little closer. Lady Zara was just as she remembered her, shimmering and magnificent. It was the clowns that caught her attention. Yes their makeup was smiling but it their real mouths were turned down in a growl, and one, one seemed to have fangs. She wiped the tears from her eyes and gripped the flyer in both hands, drawing it closer so she could inspect it minutely.

Now that she was looking closely, none of the other performers were smiling, only Lady Zara and that was when she began inspecting the tiny faces in the crowd. What she had taken for open mouthed wonder before seemed more like crying out. All those faces, terrified faces, and right in the middle, one she'd known all his life. Benny, his eyes raised to hers, his arms outstretched, and his mouth open wide as he cried out...pleaded, for her to save him.

She started screaming again but this time she knew she'd never stop.








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